When reading about the murders in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, one point in particular stood out to me as a woman: Adam Lanza killed his mother. This point reveals something essential about the nature of all violence and gives a clue as to why these horrific events take place. For though it is reported that Nancy Lanza taught her son how to shoot a gun and she believed in guns for “protection,” in order to kill a mother, you have to learn how to hate her. In order to learn how to hate one person, you learn hatred itself. My hope is that with the call for more responsible gun laws we might in the same courageous breath witness the misogyny of his act because it provides a key for unlocking any sense of “mystery” of how this could have happened and understand that women are often on the receiving end of hatred, however subtle or however much of an “aside” it might seem. This is an important point, I think, because if we are to rid ourselves of misogyny we have to trace it to its root cause; and when we do we find ourselves at the striking at the root of all acts of such violence.
Here’s what I mean: At a conference in North Carolina I had the opportunity to meet Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee of Liberia. A champion of women’s rights and girls’ education, she galvanized a women’s movement in the 1990’s in Liberia to end the civil war. Her story is well documented in the film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. In describing women’s experiences surrounding the war, she noted that full violence would correlate with growing misogyny. She recounted the times when women would walk through their towns and hear comments such as “I can’t wait for the war to start again, and I’ll rape her.” And the women were raped—by neighbors, friends, family members, sometimes with weapons, sometimes by groups. As she tells these stories, one after another of the lives of women in a violent environment, it becomes clear that we have to pay attention to women’s lives, to small acts of hatred directed at women, growing into outright misogyny, because its logical outcome in extreme cases is murder.
Can we deny that the United States is growing in misogyny when we hear ridiculous statements by politicians our fellow citizens have helped to elect about women’s bodies and rape—statements that frequently require several “corrections” before the message happens to condemn all rape? Can we deny that the music filling the earbuds of today’s youth is full of lyrics and images that portray women as little more than their ability to perform sex acts? This marginalization is in not only in our schools and universities, our religious institutions, our popular culture; step inside more than a few households and we find women in unbalanced and unhealthy situations while the husband is consuming violent porn and he judges his wife for putting on weight or not cleaning the bathroom. Listen to the children who still expect their mothers do their laundry or wash their dishes for them but who cannot be moved from the TV screen and video games that teach them how to aim rifles domestically and wage war internationally at “enemies.” While mom turns to medication for stress, the son concludes that women are just “moody” and somehow inferior.
Misogyny has made its home in our minds. A joke about women here, a justification for rape there, a sexist comment here, a violent film here, a degrading song there. One day, we find that our minds are alienated not only from women but from ourselves and our environment.
I know a young man, a father of two. His Facebook page is full of memes which, as a woman, I would say humiliate and insult us and are a bad example to his children; he might say that they are funny, or harmless. Far from it. Another gentleman I saw in Santa Rosa, California was wearing a tee-shirt with the words across his chest “I have the [ fill in an explicit word for a male organ] so I am in charge.” He bought his ice cream, then got into his car and drove out into the world to spread that message wherever he went a little louder that day. To have it on a tee-shirt, he must have felt it was really quite harmless or funny. Or, he knew it was harmful and thought it was acceptable to offer harm in that way. If he doesn’t have a family, this man at least knows women and was born to one. I can’t help to wonder, had that been a racist comment would he have dared parade it around in that coffee shop?
Misogyny is not funny or harmless any more than racism: it’s serious, even deadly. It’s a warning signal of more violence on the way. When we catch it, we can heal it.
With a culture that silently, and sometimes not so silently, communicates disrespect toward women, children might grow up taking for granted, in spite of our best efforts to the contrary, that it is acceptable to choose women as targets as they act out whatever violence is within them. That woman might be your mother, daughter, sister, friend or classmate. She might be you. This is not a call to find new ways of “protecting women” that draw upon an old masculinized paradigm of security. It’s a call for authentic transformation in the way we understand security from one based on domination, hatred and othering to one based on upholding our natural integrity as people in constant relationship with those around us. If, as gun advocates say, “guns don’t shoot people, people do” we really need more responsibility around guns and more education around gun safety. But let us integrate that part of the picture with an understanding of what drives a person to shoot a gun: hatred, fear and othering. Without addressing or even seeing these poisons at work, guns laws alone will never do. Nancy Lanza taught her son to use guns responsibly. It didn’t work. So what happened?
The first person Adam Lanza killed was his mother. We can choose to see this as another banal detail of yet another horrific act of violence or we can realize that it warns us to address not only our hopelessly inadequate gun laws but misogyny and other underlying conditions of such violence.